Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike books

Anatomy of a series — introduction

Update 31 August 2019: At long last I’ve got around to writing about the fourth novel in the series, Lethal White.

Series of crime novels are popular with readers but they pose particular problems for authors. The popularity is understandable: a book which belongs to a series provides a quick way to find one’s bearings, something recognizable but with variations. The problems for the author include the need to keep the central characters alive and active from one book to the next and to avoid becoming repetitive. But there’s a more fundamental problem if, like Tana French, you like to write about those moments in your protagonist’s life where a decision is made which will change things forever. As she put it

I could either keep dumping this poor character into huge life-defining crises every couple of years, in which case he’s going to end up in a hospital, or I could switch narrator.

French is one of the novelists whose navigation of the perils of writing a crime series I plan to examine in some detail. Another is Michael Dibdin, whose Aurelio Zen novels I’ve been thinking about in a similar context for about 20 years. But, before I write about them, I need to reread the novels of both Dibdin and French. My copies of several of the Zen books, including the crucial early ones, up to and including Cosi Fan Tutti , are in my sister’s house in the south of France, so I can’t be sure when I’ll be ready to discuss them. I have ready access to French’s series, but all except Faithful Place are long and involved narratives so, again, the process of rereading is likely to take some time.

Other series I have in mind for this treatment are the legal thrillers of Scott Turow, Sophie Hannah’s novels featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, but all of these will have to wait till I’ve got French and Dibdin out of the way.

So, as a taster of what I hope will turn out to be a series of critical essays, I’d like to take a look at the three Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith. What follows is intended for people who have already read the books: I’ll be discussing their plots freely and not making any effort to avoid so-called spoilers, so be warned.

I recently finished reading the second one, The Silkworm, out of order, having read and enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling a couple of years ago, then recently found a copy of Career of Evil lying around at work. I’m glad I read them in that order because I found the middle book to be in some respects the least satisfactory. Already familiar with the other two, I was more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. I’ll discuss the books in the order in which I read them.

The series features the tribulations and investigations of a private detective. A former military policeman who lost his right leg below the knee to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, Strike is a big man with the physiognomy of a boxer and his unusual first name is that of a Cornish giant — which, in a sense, is what he is. He has an infallibly capable assistant in Robin Ellacott, who saves both their lives in the second novel using her advanced driving skills, and makes short work of fending off a sadistically homicidal stalker in the third.

Having established this stable investigative team, Galbraith proceeds to put them in a very different kind of story in each of the three novels. In the first, Strike is down on his luck, occasionally sleeping in his (very centrally located) office, unsure whether he can afford to give Robin a permanent job. Luckily for him, a highly improbable client turns up with an almost equally improbable case. It turns out to be one of those stories where the investigator has been chosen on account of his presumed or apparent ineptitude, in the expectation that the very last thing he’ll be able to do is discover the truth.

In the end, Strike unmasks the guilty party as his own client, which doesn’t do much for his chances of getting paid for the job. Fortunately for him, the victim was famous and the resulting publicity brings in as much new business as he can handle. The trope of the underestimated detective is one I’ve always liked, and I think it’s been underused recently, so it was a pleasant surprise to find Galbraith reviving it here.

Strike’s reputation was boosted when he showed that the apparent suicide of celebrated model Lula Landry had actually been a murder, so Galbraith would not be able to use that trope again. The third novel, Career of Evil, far from employing an underused trope, confronts the reader instead with a familiar villain, the serial killer of women. When Strike discovers that, because of her connection with him, Robin is being targeted by such a killer, he is immediately able to come up with four potential suspects from his past, including a former lover of his mother’s whom Strike blames for her death from a drug overdose.

The search for a sadistic, misogynist possible murderer turns up too many results. Unfortunately, these are not “false positives”. While only one of the suspects is actually stalking Robin, two of the others are equally dangerous (and the police are determinedly focused on the fourth man, exhibiting an institutional unwillingness to face the extent of the problem of violence against women).

If I have reservations about this book, it’s because I’ve long since had more than my fill of the serial killer sub-genre, particularly when most of the victims are women. But by laying it on thick, with three whole plots’ worth of similarly motivated gynocidal monsters, Galbraith has written a novel which can be viewed as a critique of the sub-genre, thus pointing up its excesses — and the surfeit of plot is handled with aplomb.

The middle book, The Silkworm, is something else entirely: a satire on “literary London”. The obvious problem with literary satires, including this one, is that they’re inevitably written by authors, who tend to be seen as insiders in the business they’re satirizing. Here we get an alcoholic editor with a miserable marriage, a socially awkward (and apparently mean spirited) publisher who is in denial about his sexuality, and a resentful author — the victim — who attempts to take his revenge on the literary scene by lacerating it with a lurid and corruscating roman à clef.

What saves the book, I think, and certainly takes it out of the ordinary, is the portrait of the killer. She’s the literary agent whose own talent and ability (including her skill at imitating the styles of other writers) have long been forgotten and overlooked. Her rage passes unnoticed, as do her capacity for detailed planning and the coolness which enables her to dispose of the messy evidence. As Strike points out, the victim has become so accustomed to taking money from her over the years that he has effectively forgotten that he’s been blackmailing her. He’s lost sight of just how dangerous she is and how little reason he has to trust her.

The three novels so far in this series suggest that Galbraith has been using the recurring main characters as a catalyst to allow the exploration of a variety of tropes and sub-genres. Further promised books in the series will show whether this view holds up. It will be interesting to see what other contexts Galbraith finds for this detective team.

I first posted this on Medium, 19 March 2018.